Environment Minister Alex Attwood has been accused of presiding over a "broken planning system" after a damning report by Unesco criticised the handling of a planned £100m golf resort development that threatens the setting of the Giant's Causeway.
The minister (below) gave the green light to the Bushmills Dunes golf resort and spa early last year, overriding a recommendation by his own department's NI Environment Agency that Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) should be consulted.
The development is due to go ahead after a legal challenge taken earlier this year by the National Trust – which cares for the Causeway – was thrown out by Mr Justice Weatherup.
Now Unesco has drawn up a report on the saga calling on the UK to consider strengthening its planning laws to provide better protection for World Heritage Sites.
The report, which will be presented at the international conservation body's annual meeting in Cambodia next month, calls for a halt to the development and asks that the UK consult it on possible modifications and alternatives to the golf resort plan to avoid impacting on the qualities that make the Giant's Causeway unique.
Its World Heritage Committee report makes it clear that Unesco believes it should have been consulted over the planning decision and that the UK should have put stronger planning laws in place to protect World Heritage Sites.
It said: "The World Heritage Committee regrets that the State Party (the UK) did not keep the committee fully informed about the Runkerry development prior to any decision being taken that are difficult to reverse.
"The committee is also calling on the UK to consider strengthening its legal provisions and planning framework to allow the national authorities to ensure their responsibilities for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention at national level."
The National Trust said the Unesco report raises major concerns about the significant impact on the Causeway and highlight serious gaps in the law regarding the protection offered to such sites.
Heather Thompson, director for the National Trust in Northern Ireland, said: "In February we welcomed Mr Attwood's invitation for Unesco to visit the Giant's Causeway. Today we share the very serious concerns expressed by Unesco.
"The report underlines that the law in Northern Ireland does not afford the protection they – or indeed local people – would expect for such important places.
"It is essential that legislation and policy are strengthened to provide this protection urgently. There is a short window of opportunity to act on this now, while the Planning Bill is making its way through the Assembly.
"Minister Attwood made a commitment that his department would listen to the views of Unesco, so we call on him to guarantee the protection of our World Heritage Site and other special places in the new Planning Bill.
Mr Attwood said the Runkerry application had been subject to "exhaustive, detailed, lengthy and proper interrogation".
He added that he was surprised by Unesco's approach.